State-sponsored scapegoating

July 19, 2010

Nicole Colson looks at the French government's ban on Muslim women wearing a full facial veil in public--and explains why the claim that the ban is progressive is false.

WITH ONLY one dissenting vote, the French Assembly voted July 13 to ban the full facial veil worn by a small number of Islamic women in public spaces. The measure extends to both burqas and niqabs.

Under the ban, those wearing the full veil will be fined the equivalent of $190, while those who force a woman to wear a full veil will face fines up to $38,000 and a year in jail. The punishment is doubled if the woman is a minor. In all, the draft law passed with 335 votes and just a single dissenter (members of the Socialist Party, which opposed the ban, refused to vote and left the building in protest).

The bill is expected to be ratified by the French senate in September and go into effect then--although the Council of State, France's highest court, has already warned that the ban might violate both the French constitution and European Convention on Human Rights.

The new law is likely to affect only a small number of women--fewer than 2,000 women are estimated to wear the burqa or niqab across all of France. But to focus on this statistic obscures the larger truth behind the law--that it is a calculated, racist attack and an attempt to scapegoat Arab and Muslim immigrants.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
French President Nicolas Sarkozy

French authorities deny any racist intent behind the ban. Instead, they claim that they are merely upholding "secularism" in French society; helping immigrants "assimilate" into French culture; and "protecting" the rights of women who are being forced to wear the full veil.

Sarkozy told ministers at a a cabinet meeting in May, "On this question, the government is taking, in all conscience, a path which is difficult but just. We are an old nation assembled around a certain idea of personal dignity, in particular the dignity of women, and around a certain idea of married life."

But it should be asked: does a law forcing women to uncover themselves against their will elevate "the dignity of women"? And what about the dignity of Muslims overall in France--a group that faces constant poverty, racism and harassment?

FRANCE IS home to the largest Muslim population in Europe--an estimated 5 million out of a total population of some 65 million people.

Today, Muslims--particularly Muslim immigrants--in France face higher rates of poverty and cries from the far right that they are "draining" government resources.

What else to read

Sharon Smith's Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation includes an indispensable chapter on "Women and Islam" that details the 2004 French hijab ban in schools and the dubious arguments put forward by some feminists that Afghan and other Muslim women could be "liberated" through Western intervention.

For a round-up of anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia around the globe, visit the Islamophobia Watch Web site.

Conservatives--both from center-right and far-right parties--have repeatedly attacked immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, as undermining the French way of life. In 2004, for example, when France passed a ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in schools--as well as "conspicuous" Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps--then-President Jacques Chirac described the hijab in particular as "a sort of aggression."

Such conditions led to a rebellion in late 2005, when French youth, predominantly of Arab and Muslim backgrounds, protested police brutality, racism and poverty with days of rioting sparked by the deaths of two immigrant teens who were killed while being chased by police. Although the rioting began first in Parisian suburbs, it spread to more than 300 cities and towns across France.

As John Mullen, then a member of Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR, which has since joined the New Anti-Capitalist Party) and editor of Socialisme International, explained in Socialist Worker at the time:

Almost 10 percent of the French population is first- and second-generation immigrants from former French colonies, who live in rundown housing estates that ring most major French cities. These vertical slums are crowded and poorly maintained, public transportation is unreliable, and unemployment is two to three times what it is for the rest of the population--conditions familiar to African Americans and Latino immigrants in the U.S....

The government's despised Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, refers to immigrants as "scum." Two days after the teens' deaths northeast of Paris, police hurled a teargas canister inside a mosque during Friday prayers. The message of contempt is clear...The thousands of young people in revolt are a new generation of the children of immigrants, who are concluding that there is little future ahead for them.

This time around, before the ban on the burqa and niqab had even been passed, the ramifications of the government campaign could be felt.

In May, as talk of a ban became more prominent and France's parliament adopted a formal motion declaring burqas and other forms of Islamic dress to be "an affront to the nation's values," a 26-year-old Muslim woman was assaulted by two women who ripped her burqa from her body as she was shopping in the town of Trignac. According to police, one of the assailants "said she was not happy seeing a fellow shopper wearing a veil and wanted the ban introduced as soon as possible."

Such discrimination isn't new. Two years ago, France's highest court denied citizenship to a Muslim woman on the grounds that she had not "assimilated" into French society--despite the fact that she had learned to speak French--because she chose to wear a niqab. In February, French authorities refused to allow citizenship for a man who allegedly forced his wife to wear the burqa. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said at the time:

It's French law. The civil code has for a very long time provided that naturalization could be refused to someone who does not respect the values of the [French] republic.

This case is about a religious radical: he imposes the burqa, he imposes the separation of men and women in his own home, and he refuses to shake the hands of women. If this man does not want to change his attitude, he has no place in our country. In any case, he does not deserve French nationality.

Fillion's statements reek of hypocrisy. In some Orthodox Jewish communities, for example, women are required to wear head coverings, and men and women are physically segregated--including not shaking hands or touching in public. Yet Fillon would never suggest that Orthodox Jewish men do not "deserve French nationality."

Unfortunately, France is not alone in banning the full veil or attacking the rights of Muslims. In June, Spain's senate also voted (by a narrow margin) to ban the public wearing of the burqa and other garments that cover the entire body. The lower house of parliament in Belgium approved a measure that would make it a crime to wear in public "clothing that hides the face." The far-right Northern League is currently pushing for a similar ban on the full-face veil in Italy.

A Pew Global Attitudes Project poll conducted earlier this month found widespread support for banning the full face veil across most of Western Europe.

SUCH ATTACKS can't be separated from the wider phenomenon of the right wing's rise in Europe. Far-right parties have made big gains in elections across much of Europe, including in France, where the National Front recently scored new successes in regional elections in March.

With Sarkozy facing the prospect of losing his bid for reelection in 2012, and French workers being asked to accept job losses and austerity measures, far-right wing parties like the National Front (which is supposedly being led into a "new era" of slight tolerance for gay rights and women's rights by Marine Le Pen, the daughter of fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen) are sensing an opportunity for growth.

To allow the Sarkozy government to attack Muslims under the guise of "women's rights" and "secularism" is especially dangerous in light of this.

The idea that the ban is a victory for women's rights--that Muslim women, oppressed by men in their homes and forced to wear the niqab or burqa (or the hijab, many argue) outside of it, are now being "freed" by the French state--ignores the voices of women directly affected by the ban, some of whom choose to wear the full veil out of their own religious preference.

As Mabrouka Boujnah, a language teacher of Tunisian origin who lives in Paris and wears a full-face veil told CNN in January, "You are going to isolate these women, and then you can't say that it is Islam that has denied them freedom, but that the law has." columnist Sharon Smith noted in her book Women and Socialism, "Wittingly or not, feminists who support measures such as the hijab ban are supporting campaigns designed to exploit the Western symbol of Islamic women's oppression--the veil--to claim Western imperialism's cultural superiority, and bolster its domestic and global aims, all under the guise of fighting 'Islamic terrorism.'"

Other supporters of the law argue that it is merely meant to uphold French ideas of "secularism" (laïcité)--as opposed to being a specific attack on Muslims. Jean-François Copé, the majority leader in the French National Assembly, for example, wrote in the New York Times that the law is aimed "at no particular religion," since "the Koran does not instruct women to cover their faces."

Such arguments do not hold up to scrutiny. As Ronald Sokol, a lawyer who represented the woman denied citizenship based on her wearing a niqab wrote in the New York Times after the ban passed, "Neither does the Bible tell Christians to wear a cross; yet no one would suppose that a ban on wearing a cross in public would be aimed 'at no particular religion.'"

Indeed, as Smith notes in Women and Socialism, "There is something profoundly hypocritical in banning Islamic religious symbols in the name of secularism and gender equality while the French government continues to subsidize private education for the globally influential--and reactionary--Catholic Church, as well as Jewish institutions."

Shamefully, much of the French left supports the ban--and has failed to defend the rights of Muslim women to practice their religion as they see fit.

As Madeleine Bunting noted in the Guardian's "Comment is Free" blog after the ban was passed:

It is not difficult to see the racism which permeates this debate. It is about assertion of identity--under the soubriquet of protecting "our way of life"--and crucial to that is forcing a choice: do you subscribe or don't you? Sign up or get out. But such choices are notoriously slippery. Who gets to decide what our way of life is exactly?

Individual women--be they Muslim women in France who chose to wear a veil or women in Afghanistan who may choose not to--must be the ones to make the choice for themselves. State-imposed oppression--whether it comes with a left-wing gloss or not--have to be opposed, and we must stand up for the right of self-determination for all.

Further Reading

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